Commissioning conundrum

16 July 2012 Is the free schools programme in danger of repeating the mistakes now plaguing the hospital PFI sector?
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On Friday 13th, two things happened that, on the face of it, appear to have little in common, but are potentially examples of the government’s failure to learn from the past.

At the Department for Education, Michael Gove approved over 100 new free schools to be set up across the country.

Meanwhile, across Whitehall, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley was putting South London Healthcare NHS Trust into the ‘regime for unsustainable NHS providers’ – the health service equivalent to a company going into administration.

Much has been made of the relevance of PFI contracts in the latter’s position, with plenty of people stepping forward to blame ‘unsustainable’ PFI repayments for the financial collapse of the trust.

But as has long been pointed out, the main problem with hospital PFIs has been their commissioning in the first place, not the amount that they cost. While improved technology and changes to policy over the last decade resulted in greater opportunities for care in the community, the public sector continued to commission new acute hospitals without fully considering what they might be used for in 10 years’ time.

And there was also the political element. One contractor talks of efforts to effectively do himself out of work, by pointing out that many of the facilities being demanded by one trust were not necessary because of the location of another acute hospital just down the road. But the trust insisted the services were needed, as it was under pressure from the local MP to deliver a building as impressive as its neighbour (or rival, depending on how you look at it).

Worryingly, there is an echo of this short-term approach in the creation of free schools. Many are being driven by parents eager to improve their own children’s chances, but what happens in five, or 10 years’ time when their children have left and their interest has waned?
 
And what about the schools that simply aren’t as successful as their neighbours, and don’t manage to attract enough children to remain financially viable?

They’re not being built under PFI, of course, so the money will be long since spent.

But the short-termism of allowing a thousand flowers to bloom in the free schools programme does bear a resemblance to the previous decade’s push to build over 100 new hospitals, without stopping to think whether they were all needed.

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This page was last updated on:
16 July 2012.

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Commissioning conundrum

Is the free schools programme in danger of repeating the mistakes now plaguing the hospital PFI sector?

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